Tracing the rise of female producers in Malayalam cinema, from Rima Kallingal to Nazriya and Supriya Menon
Actors Nazriya and Rima Kallingal, along with a host of other female producers are leading a new wave of ownership in Malayalam cinema.
Try googling ‘female producers in Malayalam cinema’ or ‘women film producers’ and chances are that you will get a generic page about Malayalam film producers or about leading women directors. Technically no one has documented the name of the first female film producer in Malayalam. At least it’s not available on the internet. So, it can be safely assumed that women entered the economics of filmmaking only very recently.
Shanta Muralidharan is one of the earliest producers in Malayalam cinema and has produced mostly Prithviraj films (Memories, Robinhood, Classmates, Teja Bhai and Sons) and the recent Mammootty film Oru Kuttanadan Blog. Also, in the 80s actors like Seema and KR Vijaya’s names have been credited as co-producers in the title cards.
But it wasn’t until Sandra Thomas who has acted in a few unmemorable films entered film production that Malayalam cinema finally started to acknowledge the presence of a proactive woman film producer. In 2012, she produced Friday, helmed by a debutant director, headlining Fahadh Faasil and made on a budget of over 1.5 crores.
“For both Sandra and me, it was our first film and we were both on a learning curve throughout this film. Though the film was completed in the stipulated time, today I think I would have made it differently, especially the climax portions which also required a larger budget,” admits Lijin Jose, director of Friday.
“I prefer to be one among the few producers than one among the many actors. Being a producer is a thankless job. It’s something I enjoy, and I am good at it,” said Sandra in a television interview.
Soon after, Sandra partnered with Vijay Babu who was working with Star TV and started Friday Film House. Since then they have produced over 6 films that also launched 6 debutante directors into Malayalam cinema. They also devised quirky marketing strategies to sell their films at a time when the industry was relying on the good old word-of-mouth publicity.
“We fought a lot, especially when it came to the marketing part of it. Having said that her perception has always come in handy. She listens to a story while I sit with the scriptwriter. Sandra would read the final draft and give suggestions. Casting is my job, but I do consult with her now and then. I make the business plan and according to the budget she will figure out whether it works or not. She is sharp. You can’t fool her,” siad co-producer Vijay Babu to this writer during an interview two years ago, before they parted ways.
The next entrant to into production was Dubai-based Sophia Paul who began as a co-producer of Bangalore Days (2014) under Weekend Blockbuster and has produced three films since, including arthouse filmmaker Dr Biju’s Kaadu Pookkunna Neram.
“It did its rounds at all film festivals. Besides we didn’t consider the business aspect of it. It’s more to do with love for cinema. We discuss scripts with the family and take a decision. I am involved in every aspect of filmmaking, including casting and I will be on the sets throughout the shoot. That, it’s a male dominated scene has never deterred me,” admits Paul.
Actor Nazriya recently debuted as a producer with Varathan (2018) and Kumbalangi Nights (2019). Though she was unavailable for comment, director Amal Neerad recalls how she is probably the only producer who insisted on early pack ups on the sets.
Supriya Menon, wife of actor-director-producer Prithviraj Sukumaran entered production with the launch of Prithviraj Productions earlier this year. Their first film was the sci-fi horror thriller Nine. Being a journalist who wanted to do something related to her line of work as well as devote her time with her family in Kerala, this was a “natural evolution” for her.
“We both take a call on the script. But from there on Prithvi is pretty much hands-off as he is the lead actor of our production. Since I come from a corporate world, I try to bring in changes in a small way. We have very clear-cut divisions. He takes care of the creative aspects while I deal with the economics of it.” It’s something echoed by Prithviraj who admits that “Supriya and the Line Producer ran the show for him.”
The lack of a corporate culture in Malayalam cinema also weighs heavily against it, unlike in Bollywood where every aspect of cinema is corporatised. But for Supriya the fact that their first production was with Sony International Pictures helped. “It was like working in any company in the world.” Though she has been to her husband’s film sets before, once she put on the producer’s garb, she started viewing things differently. “Today I understand and question these things.” For them, it’s about “telling the kind of stories they want to tell, from a female gaze.” At least the doors are opening, says Supriya admitting that change will not happen overnight.
She is not discounting her privileged position in here. “Things would have been different if there was no backing. I am privy to a lot of things that others may not be. Or I am not subjected to a lot of things others may not be.”
Having said that she admits, she had to learn the ropes like anybody else. At the Prithviraj Productions, they are working towards bringing more female technicians on board. “Probably because it’s largely male dominated and lacks a corporate system, women shy away from taking up line production.”
One of the core issues put forward by Women in Cinema Collective was to provide hygienic bathrooms on the sets of the film, a place to rest or change sanitary napkins, breastfeed if need be and so on. “As of now, almost all these are absent on most sets. It could also be about developing a script, finding producers, career advancement and so on,” says Bina Paul, editor and founding member of the organisation.
Supriya recalls her struggle while shooting in Manali with four women in the sets, including the female actor. “There were no toilets and the nearest one was in the middle of the forest. When I raised a concern about using it at night and asked for portable loos, the local authorities were completely against it. I think these are basic things that not many men think about unless there is a voice on the sets saying that.”
The recently released Uyare, starring Parvathy, which tells the story of an acid attack survivor was produced by three sisters from a renowned film family in Kerala. Shenuga, Shegna and Sherga are daughters of producer PV Gangadharan, and their company is called SCube Films.
“Having grown up watching our fathers’ movies and their making, film production was a natural progression. Production is not just investing money, but also financial and manpower management. We were on the sets but never interfered in the creative aspects. We want to make meaningful, socially relevant films,” says Sherga.
Actor Rima Kallingal is the executive Producer of her husband director Aashiq Abu’s Opium Dream Mill cinemas and recently turned Producer with Aashiq Abu’s Virus.
In Hollywood over 17 female actors have their own production companies, Bollywood have a handful, in Tamil, actors Khushboo and Radhika Sharath Kumar have successfully run production companies, so it seems strange that Malayalam cinema, which makes some of the most progressive films in India, is clearly lacking in numbers in this department.
Most female actors admit that the idea to start their own production companies came when they realised very few women were getting the opportunity to pick and choose their films and roles. It seems more significant in Malayalam cinema considering how actor Parvathy admitted being out of work when she pointed out how a superstar film glorified misogyny. One of the many ways one can level the gender ratio at the workspace is by giving more representation to women on a film set.
Putting up an internal committee is another immediate step. Or having a woman on the sets, someone you can talk to, someone who hears you. “But that also depends on the kind of woman at the helm also. She has to be emancipated and empowered, not someone with a patriarchal mindset who tells you to grin and bear it. That’s the environment we should set up,” asserts Supriya.
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